The Spirit of Protecting the Environment

by Karma Wangdu on 26 May, 2017

The Karmapa meets with Lord Williams

Cambridge, England – May 24, 2017

Following a formal lunch in Kings College, Cambridge, the Dean guided the Gyalwang Karmapa on a tour of its stunning gothic church with its soaring roof, long history, and famous paintings. Coming back out into the spacious courtyard and passing through the college gate, the Karmapa walked along streets whose cobblestones and turreted walls made one feel that nothing had changed for centuries. At Great St. Mary’s church, the Karmapa was invited to climb the 123 tightly winding steps up past the belfry to the tower for a panoramic view of the university town.

His final destination was the Garden Room of the Masters Lodge at Magdalene College, where Lord Williams (noted theologian and scholar, Master of Magdalene College and the former Archbishop of Canterbury) was waiting to greet him at the front door surrounded by cascades of white flowers. Here under the auspices of the Inspire Dialogue Foundation and the International Campaign for Tibet, the Karmapa met with some 15 participants to talk about climate change. They included well known figures from the arts and sciences, such as Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre in London; James Thornton, top environmental lawyer and the founding CEO of ClientEarth; Dame Fiona Reynolds, former Director-General of the National Trust; Dr. Bhaskar Vira, Director, University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute; Tracey Seaward, film producer whose credits include the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, and professors, students and Tibetan scholars.

In his welcome, Lord Williams defined the purpose of the meeting as “considering some of the issues that arise from the ethics of the environment, broadly called the life of the spirit. Where are the voices of the spiritual communities? These are deep-rooted disciplines to teach us who and what we are in relation to the environment and challenge the greedy acquisitive self. They encourage the development of our capacity as human beings to enter into life as a living reality rather than bending the world to our own desires.”

Kate Saunders from the International Campaign for Tibet noted that this event came about through a conversation between Richard Gere and the Karmapa in Bodh Gaya, India. Recounting the need for Tibetans to be involved in environmental issues affecting their homeland, Kate mentioned that Chinese scientists are calling for community participation and Tibetan stewardship of the land. She also quoted the Karmapa’s recent remarks stating the importance of sharing information with scientists and engaging in discussions.

 The next speaker was Bhaskar Vira, Director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, which explores the interconnectedness of environmental issues, such as climate change and food security, through combining the research and perspectives of all six schools in the University. He talked of the need to make more visible the vitality of our connection with nature; the contributions forests can make to the hunger crisis; and the role of the natural landscape in maintaining water systems, mention that Tibet is the source of water for billions of people.

Other participants spoke of how climate change is affecting plants’ response to their environment and reducing agricultural yields. Another speaker said she was not convinced that people are persuaded by fear or materialism alone alone to make changes, but rather by beauty and by intangible phenomenon of our spiritual relationship with the landscape. We need to inspire people to act in the belief that there is a better future that is not solely dependent on material things.

The Karmapa commented, “I am in agreement with so much of what has been said. Scientific knowledge is very important but at the end of the day, protecting the environment depends on inspiring people to do something different and to change their hearts and minds.” “The challenge,” he noted, “is the distance between our understanding and our practice. We are at a really interesting moment in time. Previously, science and religion were two separate dialogues and now science and spirituality at least are coming together and contributing more to each other. Knowledge needs to work together with our hearts ad minds. Mere warnings on cigarette packages, for example, will not work unless people feel something in their heart.”

 Subsequent speakers mentioned the need to create positive, solution-based stories of our purpose on this planet, leading to the idea of an ecological (not just an economic) civilization. In response to thinking about transforming concepts of ownership, Lord Williams recalled the Hebrew Scriptures, stating that we do not own the land; rather it is lent to us for a time. Another participant remarked that changing our relationship to the earth also involved changing other power structures such as that between men and women, different races, castes, and so forth. This shift also relates to the need to feel secure. We would be more able to resolve environmental issues from a position of security, allowing people to see the mutual benefits of everyone being responsible for each other.

Ringu Tulku Rinpoche recalled that in Tibet before 1959, people looked at the environment in a special way. They had a very personal connection that could be called spiritual, and this still seems to be there. He related the story of conversing through WeChat with a group of some 100 people in Tibet about the environment. They understood the issue through two perspectives: one was the outside environment, the “container” in Buddhism, and the other was the inside environment, relating to how people react to each other and live together. The group decided that all the monasteries and communities should come together and pledged to protect the environment.

Another issue was how to relate to the younger generation, especially children under twelve, as many habits are already in place by then. Children are spending hours each day looking at a screen, so it is important to bring them into contact with the natural world. David Attenborough has said that no one will protect what they do not care about, and no one will care about what they have not experienced.

 The Karmapa responded, ”Our association with place and homeland is made stronger if there is some memory of nature associated with it. Fondness for this home space is strongest in rural areas. In Tibet, these memories and images are burnt into our minds, and this promotes a strong desire to protect our landscape.” He also commented,

‘I also agree with notion of security as being important. Our habitual tendency is to put ourselves at the center, and maybe a better approach is to put others at the forefront and see the safety of others as contributing to our own safety. This is very clear in issues such as food security and water supply.” To illustrate his point, he related the story of an eagle with one body and two heads. They did not get along with each other, so one head tried to get rid of the other and in so doing killed them both. The Karmapa commented that it is critical to remember that environments have no borders.

The Karmapa also spoke to the issue of sustained development. “These days we have the challenge of communication, where there is one position stating that we have to balance the interests of environment with development. These two are often framed as separate streams of progress that do not complement each other but actually they are completely complementary, especially for long-term sustainability. To make this interrelationship clear, we need to introduce the younger and coming generations to the patterns of cause and effect that reveal to them where their food comes from, why the weather is changing, and so forth.

Lord Williams commented that we cannot move forward with our beliefs without stripping away delusions and fantasy. While recognizing that religious language can sometimes increase problems, we can see, too, that there is a logic behind them and it can help us go deeper into the local stories, such as Syrian children coming to visit a small garden in their refugee camp. Christian theology in last 30 years has come more into focus about not being separated from our environment and each other.

When people are exposed to the non-competitive, natural processes of the world, they sense a homecoming and connection. Great spiritual traditions resonate with the human heart and stories like that of the Syrian children do as well.

In his concluding remarks, the Karmapa, who is a poet and knows the power of metaphor, said, “With regard to the stories that we create, one image that illustrates the relationship with the world that was mentioned by Ringu Tulku, is water in a glass. Water is the content and the vitality, which the glass as a container holds. This picture shows mutual dependence, as a container without anything in it, is not functioning as a container (or not being what it is), and water needs something to hold it. So they depend on each other in a relationship that is mutually beneficial.”

The colloquium was brought to an end by Lord Williams with his warm thanks to the Karmapa for coming and sharing his ideas. The two spiritual leaders of an older and younger generation walked closely together to the front door and warmly bid each other farewell. The Karmapa then returned to London through a rolling landscape bathed in the late afternoon sun.